Interview by Shauna O’Meara.
Andrew McGahan is one of Australia’s finest and most varied writers of fiction. Author of ten novels, his first, Praise, won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award in 1992. His third, Last Drinks, won a 2001 Ned Kelly award for crime writing. His fourth, The White Earth won the 2005 Miles Franklin Literary Award, the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, The Age Book of the Year, and The Courier Mail Book of the Year. His most recent stand-alone novel was Wonders of a Godless World, which won the Aurealis Award for Science Fiction in 2009. The four-volume Ship Kings is his first work of fantasy, and his first series. Andrew lives in Melbourne.
The fourth and final book in your epic Allen and Unwin Ship Kings series – The Ocean of the Dead – is due out this month. Congratulations. If it is possible to answer this without spoilers, is this final volume everything you envisioned when you first started writing book one – The Coming of the Whirlpool – or did the direction and resolution of the series change significantly along the way? Did you find the overall writing process different for a series than the stand-alone novels like Praise, Underground and The White Earth that have come before?
I remember that when I sent the first draft of Book 1 off to the publishers, I included a brief sketch of what Books 2, 3 and 4 were likely to be, so that the editors would have an idea where the series was heading. And to my surprise, Book 4 has turned out largely as that sketch suggested. Not entirely, of course. The sketch left whole sections of the narrative blank, and there are characters in the final version, some quite major, who I hadn’t envisioned even existing when I wrote the outline. But the broad concept, and the ending, and they way it all links back to the preceding books, was pretty much there from very early on.
It’s the first time I’ve ever done such a thing, by the way, plot out books in advance. With my stand-alone novels it has always been more a matter of just launching off and seeing where they ended up. But it did seem a bit mad to embark on four novels in a row without having some kind of plan in mind.
Very much mixed feelings. I’m proud and happy with the series and the way it has ended, and it’s certainly time to move on to something new, but I’m going to miss it as well. I had expected I would be getting a bit bored with Dow and Nell by Book 4, but that didn’t happen at all, quite the reverse. And in truth it’s not entirely complete even yet. On the series website – https://shipkings.com.au – I’ve been posting short stories from the Ship Kings world which follow up subplots that the novels did not have the space to explore. The stories – their collective title is The Treasures from the Deep – aren’t absolutely necessary to read to enjoy the series itself, but certain things from the books make far more sense if you’ve read the stories too. There are six on the website so far, and another two yet to be written. As they’re each about ten thousand words long, all together they actually amount to a whole extra novel in the series – and for free!
But those yet-to-be written two stories aside, I’m done with Dow and Nell, and fantasy in general, for the foreseeable future. For the next novel, it’s back to straight fiction for me. Well, kind of straight, anyway.
Your stand-alone novels, including The White Earth which won the Miles-Franklin, have often explored harsh aspects of Australian society, more recently from a nuclear devastated, science fiction perspective. What compelled you to move from this field to a fantasy YA series set on ships? Do you think you will remain with young adult fantasy or is there a chance both aspects of your writing could merge into a new Australian apocalyptic vision to join the dystopian trend running strong in YA?
I hate dystopias! Ha – no, well, that’s a little harsh. In fact, one of my favourite novels of all time, Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, is pure post-apocalyptic fare. But dystopias do seem to be in over supply right now, from a reading perspective, and as a writer I’ve never had any urge towards going that way myself. Yes, I did nuke Canberra (twice!) in Underground, and in Wonders of a Godless World I do manage to shatter the earth with a comet summoned by mind-power alone, but the former was merely absurdist political satire, and the latter was … well, I don’t know what Wonders of a Godless World was, but it wasn’t dystopian.
As for why I turned to a fantasy like Ship Kings as compared to my other more contemporary and realist fiction, well, one slightly disheartening fact about a contemporary and realist novel is that it’s fixed in its own time, and so can fade in power as that time recedes. It’s hard for me to imagine, for instance, that a century from now anyone would have any reason to read any of my straight novels. Something like fantasy on the other hand is more timeless, existing detached from any real world age, and so can survive longer. There was an appeal for me in the idea of creating something that might outlast my own time. Not saying that Ship Kings will do that, of course. But at least it might. That was one part of my motivation, anyway; though mostly, of course, it was just that I’ve always loved rollicking sea adventures, and have long wanted to try my own hand at one.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I haven’t read any new Australian stuff at all lately … but I always like to give a plug to the work of Patricia Wrightson. I don’t know how much she is read these days, but her mythological Australian fantasy was a huge influence on me growing up, so I hope that people still seek her stuff out.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Probably no one. I’m leery of meeting authors whose work I like. I’m leery even of reading articles about them, or looking up their photos. I much prefer the author to remain anonymous to me, beyond a name. The more I know about their private lives, and the more I hear about the process behind their work, the less free I feel to believe in what they’ve written. And all I care about is what they’ve written. Why they did it, and how, is irrelevant.
Of course, if I feel that way, then why do I do publicity myself, rather than remain hidden? The answer is that I have to accept that most people don’t feel the same way as me at all, and want to know about their authors. So I do a little.